The town of Northampton lies 66 miles north-west of London. It's population had been only
7,020 in 1801 and 10,792 in 1821, but then this began to increase rapidly, reaching 26,657
in 1851, 41,168 in 1871, and 61,012 in 1891. These figures do not include the village of
Kingsthorpe or the hamlets of Far Cotton and St James, each of which after 1850 evolved
into a Northampton suburb, although sited outside the muncipial boundary.
The mainspring of Northampton's expansion throughout the 19 century was shoe
manufacturing. Long established in the town, this industry employed about 20% op the
adult male inhabitants at the end of the 18th century. By 1851 this proportion had risen to
39%. By 1871 it was 45%, and the industry also gave extensive opportunuties of
employment for women and young persons of either sex. Substantial numbers of shoe workers
also lived in the villages surrounding the town.
Dominating though the shoe industry was in Victorian Northampton, it was not the only way
of earning a living open to working-class inhabitants. The building trades gave employment
to a large number of men and youths. Breweries and iron foundries were to be found in
areas near the canal and railway. The opening of the Northampton loop on the London &
North Western Railway's line was followed by the establishment of a locomotive depot at
Northampton, and the development of nearby Far Cotton as a railway suburb with a quite
different way of life from the districts where shoemakers were thick on the ground. And
there were extensive nurseries and market gardens on Northampton's outskirts, many of
which fell victims to the need for land for suburban housing in the second half of the 19
The medieval town walls of Northampton, demolished by royal order in 1662, had
enclosed about 245 acres of land. As late as 1851 about 85% of the inhabitants dwelt
within this area. Far Cotton and St James End on the west side, had their primitive
beginnings as suburbs during this decade, despite being troubled by serious flooding.
The advance of houses along the main road to Leicester eventually passed northwards
over the borough boundary into Kingsthorpe. An elite area developed along the Billing
Road from about 1850, and thirty years later high ground at Dallington, west of St James
End, was laid out with spacious mansions and quickly became a favourite place for the
All in all, the standard of working-class housing at Northampton compared favourably
with that in most other industrial towns in 19 century England. There were some
horrible slums: South Quarter at the lower end of Bridge Street; Gas Street and the
district west of Horseshoe Street; many streets, courts, and alleys north of Marefair.